Ten, 12, 15 — I’ve lost count. Day after day the last several weeks, I’ve appeared on talk shows with hosts who’ve asked the same questions: “Was Michael Jordan really that (magnificent, sublime, G.O.A.T.-like)?’’ … “Was he really that big of a (tyrant, S.O.B., jerk)?’’ … “Why were Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf so (jealous, vindictive, joyless) in breaking up the Bulls?’’
But near the end of a show last week, a host snuck in a different query: “What would you tell a young person who wants to get into sports media?’’
I paused. Did he really want to go there? Now? Sports media is a wilted flower, a pot-holed wheeze down a one-way back road in a rusted jalopy, a relic exposed as the antithesis of essential during the COVID-19 catastrophe. It has been left naked and cold by dried-up advertising revenue, radical downsizing, crumbling journalistic bedrock, corporate raiders who buy and kill news shops, an over-reliance on sports leagues and franchises to stay afloat, athletes and teams that have their own methods to reach fans and — if major sports leagues do shut down in 2020 — zero employment prospects as pay cuts and furloughs turn into permanent layoffs. Even if Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL and college football return without spectators, one might have a more secure future as a drive-thru cashier at Taco Bell. Oh, and I should note that regular access to athletes and coaches, so vital to the storytelling separating good sports sites from charlatans, might not happen in a post-pandemic world of social distancing and no press boxes, thus requiring skilled writers to cover games off TV like the basement bloggers of yore.
Or, perhaps, do something else for a living.
For some reason, I then thought of the late Albert Dickens. Fortunate to spend much of my column-writing and broadcasting career amid the vigorous, thriving heyday of media, I viewed Albert not as an editorial assistant but as a daily symbol of the good times, a wise and pleasant soul who sat at his desk in the Chicago Sun-Times sports office and reminded us how we literally had life by the balls. Forget about the pathetic, mind-blowing farces evident even in those prosperous days: CEOs/publishers who skimmed profits and went to prison, editors who protected sports owners, fans who threatened your life because you didn’t always worship Da Coach, the newspaper guild that stood firm when the editor-in-chief forearm-shivered you into his office wall, the radio boss who canned you with great ratings because you didn’t agree in writing to stop criticizing his rights-holder teams, the baseball writer who gave an MVP vote to A.J. Pierzynski because he was a trusted source, the drunken colleague who wanted to fight in a Washington arena until Al Gore came walking by, the newspaper executive who asked the college football beat writer to pick up his free season tickets, the media rivals who couldn’t outwork or outperform people but certainly could outsleaze them.
“You’re alive and well,’’ Albert would assure me in his dapper sweater and tie, “and you’re making a nice living doing what you love.’’ He would deliver such a speech on a day when I’d take for granted the ESPN debate show I was taping that morning, the one that reached nearly a million viewers a day back in the best years of “Around The Horn;’’ and the column I was preparing for the next day’s newspaper, which might take me to Wrigley Field, Soldier Field or the Slaughterhouse That Jordan Built; and the expense account that allowed me to hop on planes and cover almost any event I wanted around Planet Sport. I welcomed his verbal nudges, those cues to smell the roses.
To me, Dickens was Media Yoda. And now, just days after his passing at 82, in a sports media landscape gutted by coronavirus fallout and facing a future unrecognizable when compared to the glorious past, somebody wanted to know what I’d tell a young person about a collapsing business. I would love to have replied thusly: Go read an entertaining Washington Post guest column by Rick Reilly, who doesn’t write enough, and realize that sportswriting can’t possibly be dying as long as he’s living.
If only the answer could be that simple. This was a young person’s life, and I could save it or ruin it. Years earlier, an agent asked me to have lunch at a Manhattan deli with a recent college graduate named Jordan Schultz, who said he wanted to be a sportswriter. Emerging amid the digital content boom of the 2010s, he thankfully has done well for himself as a basketball writer and Huffington Post columnist. Yet I wonder, in retrospect, if Jordan might have preferred the path of his father, Howard, the King of Starbucks. So my response to the radio host could not afford to be nuanced. I wanted to tout a sports media career as a blessing, as it has been for me for decades, but I also don’t want to add another dark statistic to the staggering U.S. jobless total. This is how I clapped back at our imaginary aspirant:
“Sure, pursue sports media as a sidelight gig. But you might think about writing code, not sports, until you have some money in the bank.’’
From this point forward, I’m afraid, a volatile industry has only limited options, none as appealing as when I began at 19 as a fiercely independent rabble-rouser with a singular journalistic mission: No one ever would order me what to write or say. First of all, the very idea of pugnacious, nonaligned sports journalism is all but extinct, swallowed by media companies that prefer to secure business partnerships with leagues, franchises and programs and eagerly promote those entities rather than also covering and scrutinizing them — a frightening thought about a $200-billion industry rife with scandal.
There are people who follow leagues and teams as beat reporters, people who excel in long- and short-form storytelling, people who host talk shows as couriers for teams on the station and people on TV who shriek about whether the Packers insulted Aaron Rodgers by drafting Jordan Love. But the hard-hitting columnists who keep the sports owners and power brokers honest are dwindling to dust, either too pricey for the payroll or too hot to handle for sites such as The Athletic, which lacks edge and somehow is trying to cover AND appease the Big Sports mechanism. And the days of ESPN hammering the NFL over concussions and player conduct cases are long past, replaced by a corporate need to butter up commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners and help the network land a spot in the Super Bowl broadcast rotation. As for local media operations, which once exposed Barry Bonds’ steroids sham and some of sport’s biggest scandals, most gave up on investigative reporting long ago, realizing the professional and college machines have enough financial and political clout to flick them aside, probably with one call from a team executive or coach to a stadium-suite-leasing media boss.
The 2020 survivalist mantra: Become a sports sycophant or die. I’d rather die, keeping in mind that no one should allow an industry capable of being so thankless and cutthroat — lowbrow, too — to define one’s self. If sports media were a shinier craft, yes. And it once was, with the Post calling it “a storied profession’’ in its own piece last week about the demise of the industry. But the world is very big, folks — travel, art, wineries, parties, sunsets, movie scripts and 22-mile ocean bicycle trails, assuming we’re allowed to resume those activities — and you’d be foolish to allow the sports media trade to completely hijack your life when inevitably, for reasons that have nothing to do with talent or production or work ethic, you’ll be blindfolded and tossed aside by someone working for someone who works for someone.
And whatever happened to the spirit of beatdown competition, whipping the rivals with a big story or a mightier column and making content better for readers, viewers and listeners? Does anyone compete anymore? Back when I arrived in Chicago, I made a point of calling the publicist of author Sam Smith and requesting an advanced copy of “The Jordan Rules,’’ the hot new book that revealed the dictatorial side of MJ. She not only sent excerpts, she sent some of the most controversial, which was great for the Sun-Times because we didn’t pay a penny for material that the rival Tribune — which employed Smith as a Bulls beat writer and compensated him with a salary and expense money — paid thousands of bucks to publish. Of course, I published a column about it first, embarrassing the Tribune and prompting Smith to call my editor, moping that I was trying to get him fired. To this day, Sam is cranky about it when, you know, he should have put the clamps on his publicist.
Maybe young people today clamor to be Mike Greenberg, an amiable TV and radio host. But if they want to emulate Bryant Gumbel and his reporting titans on HBO’s “Real Sports,’’ they’re out of luck because the show has only a few correspondents, and there’s no other program like it. And if they want to be Reilly — hey, he gets it, choosing scuba-diving each morning in Hermosa Beach over a regular writing regimen. He can afford to, you see. Such were the perks of sports media in the ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s and part of the ‘10s.
But not the ‘20s.
A reader of this column knows I’ve been alarmed, if not disgusted, by networks and sites that carry an amateurish, sappy tone of wishful thinking when “reporting’’ about the possible resumption of live events. I wrote about it last month, and because it doesn’t stop, I’ll run it back — as it pertains to the future of media. ESPN cannot speak sports into existence, but it certainly tries every night, with “SportsCenter’’ host Scott Van Pelt continuing as a mushy Disney character when, more than ever, we need journalistic clarity about the medical crisis of our lives. A series of critical issues should be addressed on each show: How will sports keep athletes and support staffs safe during an ongoing pandemic? … Are health risks worth taking just so leagues and athletes can recoup pieces of lost fortunes? … Does the whole thing go to hell if there’s a second wave of coronavirus? … Despite marked improvements in available testing, would enough kits be available over the months ahead — MLB alone needs 10,000 per week — for numerous pro and college inventories? … How can this be accomplished without depleting the national test supply and making sports leagues look uncaring and greedy? … What happens when athletes test positive? … Is MLB seriously going to quarantine a player who tests positive but NOT quarantine his exposed teammates, allowing the games to go on? … And will leagues be transparent publicly about every positive test or cover it up to protect their seasons and incoming revenues?
I rarely hear a mention of such protocol roll calls on ESPN. But I do get Stanford Steve, who joins Van Pelt on a frat-bro segment about past wagers gone awry. And I get a deceiving headline in the show tease — “PLAYERS TALK RETURN’’ — when there’s no certainty the NBA will resume play this year. So, kids, you’re basically stumping for sports leagues if you want to work in the biggest media shops. Even Van Pelt openly debated his purpose when he told CNN Business, “I have asked that question aloud and in my brain driving home some nights, where I think, `What are we doing?’ ‘’ The pandemic is one of those moments in time, like 9/11 and world wars, when sports media should want to be on the front lines. Instead, they’ve retreated into minimal-audience irrelevance. Why? Because the leagues expect media to be loyal partners in a time of crisis, to dutifully report what the leagues want the public to think, even if it’s tantamount to brainwashing that serves the bottom line.
That isn’t journalism. It’s cooperative public relations. And in the future, a bleak trend that started years ago will continue in full force: If you want to work in sports media, you’ll likely be working directly for the leagues and teams themselves, or for a company that remains obedient in covering them. And if you want to report a story they don’t want reported, you’ll be bounced out of town, if not out of the business. You may remember when wives of Houston Astros players were harassed by White Sox fans during a World Series game in Chicago, forcing the Sox to apologize; well, my column about the apology never saw the light of day, killed by editors intimidated by Sox management. On a higher level, this is how President Trump tries to bully the White House press corps, but enough media shops have remained strong and protected the backs of political reporters. Sports? I can count on one hand how many boardrooms would protect their people in a firestorm.
The New York Times is one. Bleeding from financial woes, ESPN was too busy making money off the UFC 249 pay-per-view presentation to investigate business partner Dana White, who made a debacle of testing protocols in Jacksonville and didn’t seem to care if COVID-19 was spread or lives were lost. A Times sports reporter wrote a critical and fair story, accusing the UFC president of flouting Florida safety and health guidelines — headline: “U.F.C.’s Coronavirus Plan Is Careful. Its Enforcement Has Been Spotty’’ — with White responding in his usual level-headed, mature tone.
“F–k that guy. F–k that guy,’’ he said. “You know what happened with that guy? That guy, who has never covered the sport ever before, was writing a story about (UFC parent company) Endeavor … What do you think happened when this guy and this paper covered the UFC when they had never covered it before? What do you think happened? The f—–g story was huge. They did killer traffic. Now they’re writing stories, three a week, and they’re posting live results I don’t give a s–t what that guy thinks, what he has to say or what he writes. Good for him.”
Was White concerned about fallout from the piece?
“I don’t give a f–k,” he said. “Don’t give a f–k.”
The Trump effect, call it.
I suppose a sports media aspirant could work for White and serve as his publicity flack, assuming he or she wants to risk contracting the virus. Or, worse, you can work for one of these goof-bubba sites where you make weed money for a few years but ultimately embarrass friends, family and even rats in the attic. You know: the joints run by creeps who see sports and sports media as toilets, take massive dumps and turn the profession into a sewage clog, aiming content at burnouts while declaring war on smart, well-adjusted humans. Like most panelists who’ve logged thousands of airtime hours on ESPN, I was targeted by one such loser who wrote about me so often — pathologically lying to the end — that there had to be something seriously wrong with him. There was: He was a hard-core drug addict who wound up in rehab and wrote about it, which may have explained why he had me followed and offered money to any colleague with “dirt’’ when I began a San Francisco gig. Later, Hulk Hogan sued the guy and his affiliated website for an original award of $115 million, putting both out of their misery forever.
If you think I’m overly cynical, I could suggest The Athletic. The founders, propped up by venture capitalists, are fighting the good fight for the future of sportswriting albeit with a glaring obstacle — they’re relying entirely on subscriptions that likely have peaked after four years of existence and won’t be selling during a sports-crippling pandemic, meaning hundreds of talented writers could be out of work if sports don’t return or a second virus wave buries an attempt to return. Actually, Sports Illustrated, despite internal flareups and various dents on a once-sterling reputation, might have a better chance to survive as a smaller operation. There are even smaller sports sites, zillions of them, but you’ll have a better life drawing unemployment.
TV? You either become a full-blown company man and get bonuses every time you utter, “This is why we love sports,’’ or you twist and shout like Stephen A. Smith. Otherwise, the networks will keep hiring those who played, coached or generally managed the game, often preferring been-in-the-trenches faux cred to compelling, thoughtful discourse and going so far to pardon criminals in sports and real life, from Alex Rodriguez to Ray Lewis.
Documentaries? This would be my recommendation, having contributed to the Hollywood content churn myself, with “The Last Dance’’ docu-series inspiring a new batch of sports films available in coming days — the Donald Sterling racism affair; Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and the bogus home-run derby of 1998; the Lance Armstrong doping scandal; even a piece on Bruce Lee. But this isn’t sports media work, remember. It’s filmmaking, which means Jason Hehir, director of the 10-part Jordan series, is considered a far greater creative force today than Wright Thompson, thought to be the best of the current sportswriters and a guy ESPN actually has used — burp! — to chow down at college football tailgates.
The takeaway: Unless you really like brisket, please avoid journalism school and enroll in film school. But even then, as Hehir knows, you’re at the mercy these days of iconic athletes — some with their own production companies — who want their legacies crafted their way, maximizing the triumphs and minimizing the gambling mischief and political limpness. See, you’re still working for The Man.
Talk radio? All you need to know is that Bernie Miklasz, the biggest sports media personality in St. Louis the last three decades, was fired from his talk show because he made too much money. And the story floated in the New York Post about the teetering fate of ESPN host Dan Le Batard? Much as Le Batard denies the story, he pulls down more than $3 million a year — and the Post media writer has strong Bristol sources. Anyone who makes real money in talk radio soon might be replaced by … wait, a kid out of college! There’s the answer for our sports media aspirant: Work cheap when the big-money guys are ziggied!
Dismiss me if you’d like. But one sunny morning in 2009, on a Wrigley Field rooftop, I told the legendary writer Frank Deford, a former boss of mine who passed in 2017, why newspapers would fade away if they didn’t adjust to technology and create a revenue balance between newsprint and an eventual digital takeover. A year before, I had opted out of a lucrative, long-term deal because the Sun-Times reneged on a promise to improve its website — a flaw that led to the paper’s quick free-fall. Deford, then hosting a “Real Sports’’’ segment about the troubles of print media, pointed to a copy of that day’s paper and asked, incredulously, if the newsprint product would cease to exist. I told him the entire operation, someday, would cease to exist. For now, the Sun-Times remains on life support, kept alive by the periodic financial largesse of Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, which means a staffer can’t criticize the Hawks anymore without being Bullwinkled by Rocky. But truly, whatever was left of a once-dominant sports department died when Albert Dickens passed.
I remember the day when Ozzie Guillen, a crude baseball loon worthy of my nickname for him (“The Blizzard Of Oz’’), called me a “(bleeping) fag.’’ He was incensed because I’d criticized him, while on a road trip covering the NBA Finals and U.S. Open golf, for rebuking a kid pitcher who didn’t bean a Texas Rangers batter as ordered. This led to a national media storm that included requests for me to appear with Tucker Carlson and Bill O’Reilly, half-assed punishment from the commissioner’s office and interest-conflicted Sun-Times editors who cheaply exploited coverage of the flareup, including a sports boss who asked me to issue a statement for other media outlets. Um, wasn’t my “statement’’ contained in the column I was writing on Guillen? WTF?
Sometime later, I saw Albert at his desk. “You sure know how to keep the lights on around here,’’ he said.
It’s a lost art, kids.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.
This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.
Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.
This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.
The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.
Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.
NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.
Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.
Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.
Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.
A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.
It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay.
MLB Network is another option
If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.
- One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
- CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
- The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
- ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.
Jessie Karangu is a columnist for BSM and graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland but comes from Kenyan roots. Jessie has had a passion for sports media and the world of television since he was a child. His career has included stints with USA Today, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sightline Media. He can be found on Twitter @JMKTVShow.
ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.
The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.
First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.
Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.
Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.
It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do.
Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.
Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?
I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?
That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.
After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else.
There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.
Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.
Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.
Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.
I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.
Danny O’Neil is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously hosted morning and afternoon drive for 710 ESPN Seattle, and served as a reporter for the Seattle Times. He can be reached on Twitter @DannyOneil or by email at Danny@DannyOneil.com.
Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not
On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.